Tuesday, 21 October 2008


My first lesson in fireproofing came while working on a well-known British TV series.

Police are called to a house to investigate a burglary in progress. They arrive to discover that the householder has already apprehended the suspect. In fact, he's beaten him unconscious.

In my scene description for the bedroom in which the supposed burglar is found I had casually written: 'There is blood all up the wall.'

Oh, naughty screenwriter. Bad, bad screenwriter.

It was pointed out to me, by a very lovely script editor, that this could be taken as an invitation to the stage management people to cover the bedroom with Kensington Gore. The scene would then look like Sam Peckinpah had shot one of his slow-motion sequences in there. So could I please amend it to: 'There are two or three drops of blood on the wall'?

My next lesson was on another primetime TV drama. On this occasion, petroleum spirit was seen being poured through a letter-box, followed by a burning rag (ooh, isn't my work nasty?). Again, it fell to the script editor to ask me to specify that THE AREA AFFECTED BY THE FIRE EXTENDS NO FURTHER THAN THE DOORMAT. Otherwise, it was pointed out to me, Vis-FX would burn the house down.

You see, we forget, us screenwriters. While we're so busy, thrashing out our marvellous scripts, we forget that it's so very, very easy to write out a sentence, but when it comes to production, that casual, seemingly throwaway sentence can mean hours of work for somebody.

Another TV series - this one involves a hospital. I had written, without really thinking about it very much, that one car swerves to avoid another car. Easy enough, you'd think.

Er - no. Just the paperwork involved in that one 'stunt' wiped out part of a rain forest. I actually felt quite ashamed. Thoughtless me, dashing off some line about a car swerving. Did it not occur to me that that could be dangerous? That somebody would actually have to make a car swerve it order to film it?

Vile, wicked, inconsiderate screenwriter!

Perhaps I should have been more specific about how much the car had to swerve.

While all this was going on (there was about five years between the blood-on-the-wall incident and the potentially-deadly-car-swerve) I was also learning that it was not just set-dressers going berserk that you had to guard against. You don't just have to take precautions against over-enthusiastic special effects teams. In fact, anyone involved in the production side of things can make a mess of your delicate labours.

Actors, for example. By and large, they don't have to do much. A car fetches them from the hotel. They get pampered by some fresh and fragrant make-up artist. They get fed and watered very nicely. And all they have to do is walk a bit and say something or other. Simple, yeah?

Don't you believe it. Watching some actors at work on your script will make you want to cry with joy. Others will make you wonder whether the laws on involuntary euthanasia shouldn't be relaxed.

And what about directors? On the whole, I like directors. They only want to look good by turning your crummy script into screen magic, and there's nothing wrong with you taking the credit for their brilliant ideas. But don't imagine for a single moment that a director can't cock up your script.

Editors? They take decisions about what gets left in and what gets taken out when you're not looking.

In short, you slave away in a dark room on iron rations, desperately polishing your lovely script until it shines. And then you hand it over to a bunch of monkeys. Some of those monkeys are exceptionally talented. But they're still monkeys.

You have to protect yourself. More importantly, you have to protect your script.

My first lesson in this involved making the script 'stage-management proof'. My second lesson was about being 'Vis-FX proof'.

No one ever told me to make my scripts 'director proof' or 'actor proof'. I learned that from experience.

And here's the catch. Actors and directors can get a bit shirty when the screenwriter tries to tell them how to do their jobs. Sometimes, they'll do the opposite of what it says in the script, just to prove who's the boss.

So we have to be clever. We have to anticipate all the many different ways that somebody involved in the production can interpret our words and then make sure that there's only one possible interpretation.

In fact, this brings us to the essence of good screenwriting, which is all about being CLEAR and PRECISE.

It's all too easy to just write a line of action or a line of dialogue. But to fireproof it, you have to be aware that somebody else is going to be let loose with that bit of action, that brilliantly witty line. And that person may well want to make their presence felt by following their own interpretation of what you might have had in mind.

Don't give them the opportunity.


It's your job to be in control of the script. Bitter experience will teach you that, if you don't carefully consider the possible ramifications of everything to write in your script, there's every possibility that you'll be embarrassed by what somebody does during production.

After all, it's your name that goes out after 'Written by'.

Fireproof your script. Be CLEAR and PRECISE about everything that happens in it. Don't leave any room for interpretation. Be CLEAR and PRECISE.

Unless, of course, you really do want blood all up the wall.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

good blog, BUT I always thought specifics like that should always be left up to the director. that's what I've been told anyway.

script doc said...

Old saying - 'If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.'

I think directors should build on our efforts, not fill in our blanks.

Still, it's a good point you raise. I think there's a lot more to be said on the subject.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yeah... it's confusing sometimes, though. I was originally trained as a playwright, so I know how important it is for playwrights to make everything clear in their scripts (for the most part anyway) but it's a whole different field for filmmaking.

I don't want any lame shitty directors to read my script and have a different vision, so sometimes I think to myself, "ok, make this CLEAR" in the action sequences, and other times I worry that I might have run-on sentences which would my sript un-necessarily longer.

I just read the spec screenplay 'Wanted' and the tone of the script was REALLY different from the film version. maybe 'cos the screenwriters weren't too specific on describing characters and the tone of the story. that's just me, though.


Only just come across your blog and thought I'd stop by to say Hi Script Doc.


Hi Script Doc!

script doc said...

Hi Sheikspear!

Welcome aboard.